“Monty Python’s Spamalot” gets my vote for the most implausible Broadway hit to come down the pike in a long time.
Yes, we live in a postmodern age when many of the most popular shows make fun of musical theater even as they deliver many of the basic pleasures that musical fans expect. “Spamalot” is certainly one of those shows.
But when you break it down and examine its various parts — the gleeful absurdism, the anarchic disdain of theater conventions, the physical gags and jokes that veer between subversive and just plain dumb — the only reasonable conclusion is that there’s no way this thing could have worked. By rights it should have been a bomb.
That it’s a vastly entertaining romp is a testament to the daunting talents of the creative team. First and foremost is Eric Idle, the Python veteran who in adapting the 1975 movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” for the Broadway stage co-wrote the music, wrote the book and lyrics and generally managed to keep the Monty Python antic spirit in all its rude and crude charm. But the guy who makes it all work is veteran director Mike Nichols, who found a way to remain true to the spirit of the movie while giving us a Broadway show that exists on its own terms.
One of the most memorable bits in the film — the one involving the Black Knight, who still has plenty of fight even after losing his arms and legs in a sword fight — is recreated on stage. The killer rabbit makes an appearance. We see the feet of God. Sir Galahad and the Lady of the Lake perform a duet called “The Song That Goes Like This,” mocking the kind of mawkish show tune that populates so many second-tier contemporary musicals. Later the company performs a ridiculous pop anthem, “Find Your Grail.”
The touring unit that blew into town this week boasts a top-notch cast and production values that easily match the long-running Broadway production.
Christopher Gurr is an estimable King Arthur while Esther Stillwell is spectacular as the Lady of the Lake, a great role that needs an actress who projects sexiness as well as sharp comedic skills. The supporting players, all of whom are required to play multiple roles, demonstrate impressive versatility. The standouts are Robert Petkoff as the cowardly Sir Robin; Jeff Dumas as Patsy, Arthur’s hapless manservant; and Christopher Sutton as Prince Herbert, the reluctant bridegroom whose chief interest seems to be curtain fabrics.
The show’s success is due in large part to the fact that it never stops moving. As it goes relentlessly goes from one set piece to the next, the humor never wears out its welcome. It never gives theatergoers a chance to think about what they’re actually seeing on stage.
And apparently that’s just fine with audiences. The opening night crowd at the Music Hall rewarded the cast with a standing ovation.